SXSW Interview: Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones Break Down ‘Breaking Upwards’


Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones have made their presence known at SXSW in a large way. Now they talk to us about working through relationship issues on-screen in Breaking Upwards.

You have to respect a film like Breaking Upwards, if only for the amount of work Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones put into. We happen to like if for quite a few other reasons, but that is besides the point. Wein directed, the pair co-wrote the film along with Peter Duchan, Lister Jones wrote lyrics for the soundtrack and they also co-star in the film. Too often we hear a filmmaker say that the film is their baby. Wein and Lister Jones have every right to make that statement. They let us in on what it took to get Breaking Upwards this far.

Adam Sweeney: Last night at the Q&A, you were asked about whether the film was inspired by you two actually working through a relationship. How much of the script was from actual experiences and how much was fictional?

Daryl Wein: They were pretty close. Our conversation about strategy was a pretty close representation of what we kind of talked about when we were coming up with the idea for the breakup/relationship. Also, the scene after the seder, I don’t want to give anything away, but we’re talking about an actual person–

Zoe Lister Jones: Sharing information.

DW: Right, sharing things about a person we have been with. That was a very close conversation.

ZLJ: But it was still scripted. It was scripted and worked through. We never said, “Forget the lines. We should just do it!” It was all quite planned.

DW: They were all inspired by–

ZLJ: Very little was fictionalized. We chose days. We had conversations about new rules, made new boundaries that had to work. Seeing other people on those off days was something that happened. Shit hitting the fan also happened when we found out about those people. What was fictionalized more than what was happening between us was our parents’ storylines. Those were a little more fictionalized.

One thing I liked about it, and anyone who has gone through the process of breaking up but still is holding on to the state of couple-dom, is that we see the glaring hypocrisy in the characters, in the sense that they’re doing the same exact thing. They’re going off and finding other people. If they would just look at themselves in the mirror, they could just see that they were doing the exact same thing. Both of your characters were very moving. You both had things to like about you but we could all see the relationship spiraling downward. What was that like to rehash old memories? Did you find it difficult or was it easier in terms of acting?

DW: Honestly, I was so stressed out doing directing and producing that I didn’t have a moment to focus on feeling of what it was actually like to be going through it again, except for the scene we were talking about a second ago.

ZLJ: I think the most painful and complicated process was writing, because we were so overwhelmed. We were a two man operation. We had a lot of people doing camera work and shit like that, but we were producing everything, writing, scheduling actors and all that shit. But there was very little time to say, “Oh, how is this making me feel a certain way?” It was like, “Act, get shit done,” but we definitely got into serious fights over the script process.

DW: We had plenty of time to think about it then.

ZLJ: A lot of that was because of the way people remember a relationship. So, of course we both remember it very differently. When Daryl wrote the script without me, I was like, “Hell no. Let me tell you how it really happened.” So that was really therapeutic to rehash that and talk about it together, saying, “Is that how you thought that went, because I thought it went like this.”

DW: After a while it becomes numb or I became numb to it. You can only spend so much time acting with each other, writing it and editing it. By then I didn’t feel much.

That’s interesting because I’ve written some and there are times where you’re trying to project yourself onto the script. You have to be careful of losing the reality of the situation, so it’s cool that you were both able to call each other on the mistakes in fact by saying, “Wait a minute, that is kind of slanted point of view. Zoe, you have a theatrical acting background. What do you find to be more interesting? A lot of people feel theatre is more organic. How was the transition and what do you like about both of them?

ZLJ: I graduated from New York University and right off the bat I started doing theatre, film and television guest spots, so there was never a strict transition. But for me, the grass is always greener. When I am doing a play I wish I was doing a movie, when I am doing a movie I am like, “Man, I wish I was doing a play!” I think a play for an actor is the most organic experience an actor can have, because you’re able to actually live the arc of a character chronologically, which is important. You also tell an entire story in a certain amount of time every night. In a film, this one especially, it was quite nice that we worked with the actors on all their schedules so that they could shoot in two days, where a real movie with a budget would have them sitting around for hours, then have them come back for another bunch of hours, which is realy frustrating for an actor. There’s a lot of work to do in anticipation of the work as opposed to the actual work. All of our actors got to go back to back, which was really nice to have that energy and go without stopping.

You both worked on the soundtrack. What was the process like in terms of finding certain dialogue or shots that fit the musical composition?

DW: You should talk to Zoe about that. It’s more her soundtrack.

ZLJ: (Laughs) Well we did both work on it. In terms of shot selection, we told our composer what we were looking for in terms of style. At the beginning, we had a conversation and he sent us a couple of tracks to see if we liked where he was going with it. We did. Then we sent him a rough cut to work specifically with scenes. There was a lot of really intense work, very specific moments, especially for Daryl. He will say, “I don’t like that part.” I’m more easy going with that, which is why it is great that Daryl is the director. He will say when something isn’t right in the moment, but for the soundtrack we all had a lot of fun making it. For us to sing, we’re not trained singers–

DW: I’m trained. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

ZLJ: (Laughs) But to be able to release because we were so pent up from the filming, that was really nice. Writing lyrics was really fun. I’ve always wanted to be a music supervisor. It’s like a dream job for me on a movie. I would never be able to do that job but it was nice to say, “I want it to sound like Grizzly Bear. We will make it sound like that without paying forty thousand dollars.” So that was fun.

What would be the overall theme or message of the film?

DW: I don’t know that I could day there is a message. We were trying to create a more thoughtful look at relationships in our age group, just making it more specific. There are a lot of shallow relationship movies these days about our age group. The push and pull of the whole thing, the arc of our relationship is something we worked really hard on. There’s times when she’s needy, there’s times when I’m needy. Honing in on a specific emotion so that it didn’t feel like a general blob of a relationship.

ZLJ: I think the message would be that for our demographic of twenty-somethings, we don’t have to be portrayed as passive people who complain about things but don’t do anything about it. We don’t have to be constantly musing about nothing all the time. Without citing anything specific, we wanted to portray ourselves and therefore maybe our generation as people who actively seek out solutions to their problems, and are seeking specific answers to the questions. We’re not just whining about them.

DW: It’s what people our age do in real life, which doesn’t seem to be translated to the screen very often.

I think the film succeeds in escaping the cookie cutter romantic film where you say, “Here’s my problem. Bam. We solved it.” Or some guy comes in, loses guy or girl, has a thoughtful pause and an angst-ridden moment. Done. I feel like this film rises above all of that.

ZLJ: That’s very nice of you to say.

Are there any bands or films you want to see at SXSW?

DW: We’re not seeing the music but we’re looking forward to seeing Three Blind Mice.

ZLJ: Our friend Sam Rosen is in Four Boxes. We want to see that.

My friend is actually DJing their party. I want to get over there and see that.

ZLJ: Oh, really?

AS: Yeah.

ZLJ: Our composer Kyle Forester is in a band called Crystal Stilts. They’re playing in the music festival and are very cool. If we were staying, I would want to see them. There’s one person on our soundtrack who is not original. We just loved his song. He was very generous to let us have it without paying anything up front. He is in a band called Jack Lewis and the Cutoffs. Jeffrey Lewis is kind of in an anti-folk kind of movement happening. He’s playing also, I think. Maybe he’s not. He was here last year. I gotta give him a little shout out.

Right? Gotta spread the love. Well it’s been great talking to you and hope to see what you do with the film and where you go afterwards. Thanks for the interview.

For more of the best damn coverage of the 2009 SXSW Film Festival, check out our SXSW ’09 Homepage.

Adam Sweeney has a background in journalism, having spent 4 years on the Lone Star Lutheran as an Opinions and Arts & Entertainment columnist. He graduated in May 2008 from Texas Lutheran University with a Dramatic Media degree and hopes to become a filmmaker/journalist/radio host/actor extraordinaire. He also writes film and play scripts and figures if Good Luck Chuck can make it to the big screen then why can't he? He can also be read at TalkHoops.net as a feature writer on all things basketball, and his personal blog covers everything from politics to why Keira Knightley is looking more like Jack Skellington every day. (www.myspace.com/theadamlee)

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